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Knight News Challenge Neighborly Submission

From E-Democracy.org

Back to Neighborly

This is the drafting zone for our invited Round Two submission. The official version is here as submitted. You may rate and comment on it there.

Also see our round two Knight News Challenge Public Meetings Submission.


Project Title: Neighborly Social Media - The Block Captain as Editor Sharing Local News and Civic Information

Requested amount from Knight News Challenge: 575,000

Expected amount of time to complete project: 2

Total cost of project including all sources of funding: 775,000


Describe your project:

Be neighborly online. The classic "block leader" is the ultimate hyper-local disseminator of news and civic information. Neighborly seeks to equip these natural human editors with the tools they need to communicate with their neighbors, monitor local information sources, and share information among nearest neighbors. Whether it is accessing block level crime information in near real-time, filtering updates from their elected officials and local agencies of direct relevance, or monitoring community news sources for essential news, a digital dashboard will save the time required to scan information for further dissemination. Our system outline: 1. Enter address. 2. See map, set "friendliness" circle from 5 to 200 nearest neighbors in system. You will connect with neighbors you know and "break the ice" with others based on reciprocal openness not over-exposure online. 3. Share optional information/links about you securely with neighbors in your "dynamic" circle (be it simply how to best contact you or your page on Twitter or Facebook, etc.). 4. Share and access very local democratic/civic information and news related precisely to your personal neighbors network. 5. Participate via multiple technologies with simple default twice weekly e-mail digest and urgent alert capabilities. 6. Become an e-block leader to organize a specific area. 7. Tie this semi-private experience into broader public life opportunities to connect with democratic information and news in your community. 8. Design system for robust "organic" local everywhere scalability that can serve everyone interested without top-down labor with real names, yet supports intensive outreach and use where promotional and partner resources exist. 9. Syndicate access via local media and others to reach more people.

How will your project improve the way news and information are delivered to geographic communities?

We can reach 20% of households in Minneapolis/St. Paul, or ~55,000 participants, with the right community partnerships and promotion. The "e-blockclubs" in Neighborly will be private resident-only spaces that complement our newer public neighborhood-wide Issues Forums which reach over 10% of households in our established areas. The more local, the more relevant the content, the more "neighborly" and attractive to everyday people. Right now the police, city council members, government offices, local neighborhood newspapers have a mish mash of online news and alert services. Our block leaders will serve as natural filters passing along the most relevant news and information. Participants will also share and generate new information.

How is your idea innovative? (new or different from what already exists)

Our "local everywhere" technology will enable bottom-up news and information sharing by neighbors anywhere we can connect addresses to longitude and latitude. This will be far more organic and self-help than current models. Instead of a single National Night Out, we will build "neighbors everyday." We envision Facebook, iPhone/Andriod, and other "Apps" (like text to voice for the elderly) for ease of use across multiple interfaces. As a non-profit and based on preliminary meetings, we will seek to collaborate with local community policing efforts to become the trusted two-way communications tool promoted to block leaders. Two-way trust built from real identities is crucial and simply not supported by government nor the media online.

What experience do you or your organization have to successfully develop this project?

On Dec. 12 with the Great American Civic Hackathon, a large group of open source programmers gathered in Minneapolis: http://pages.e-democracy.org/Hackathon They volunteered to work on a geo-based electronic block club generator or the Neighborly platform as it is now known. E-Democracy.org has the ability to connect and inspire a new generation of programmers with our 16+ years experience with the use of technology to provide democratic information and civic engagement. We are a non-profit uniquely serving over 15 communities across three countries - we know how to extend our efforts effectively to multiple local communities. Key to our success will be our ability to leverage thousands of current participants in city-wide forums and funded neighborhood-wide Issues Forums in low income, high immigrant areas. With our rural outreach experience, we will also pilot an e-township effort connecting nearby farmers/rural residents with the same platform. We recently attracted modest Ford Foundation funding to start our Participation 3.0 - http://e-democracy.org/p3 - initiative in 2010. Included is an exploration into ideas related to local government transparency and accountability through online information dissemination and public engagement. Neighborly is a candidate to be one of the ten "next generation" ideas we will explore through our open specification process. E-Democracy.org is led by Steven Clift who has extensive experience bridging the civic engagement and media world as well as his role as the founder of the State of Minnesota's first government portal.

What unmet need does your proposal answer?

(738 of 750 characters remaining)

Civic information from government and community organizations is not functionally accessible in a timely basis online. Complex websites make finding relevant information a needle in haystack experience. While many sites announce new information via e-mail newsletters, blogs, Twitter, etc., reaching those who would be most interested at the very local level is extremely difficult. We need e-block "editors" and shared exchanges where in extremely small groups we can share the most relevant local information. According to PewInternet.org, 4% of adults belong to "neighborhood e-mail lists." That is 8 million people. What about 96% of adults or even the next 16% of adults? We can connect millions more ready to be neighborly online.

What tasks/benchmarks need to be accomplished to develop your project and by when will you complete them?

(1990 of 2000 characters remaining)

Year One - 1. Develop public specification open to scrutiny and broad engagement. 2. Determine scope of service and mix of light "neighbor directory" services versus communication network. Determine best mix of encouraging neighbor to neighbor exchange via our system versus leveraging existing social networking services. 3. Open beta in Minneapolis/St. Paul with formal city government and media partnerships to the greatest extent possible. 4. Extraordinary outreach - Reach thousands of residents via city-wide communication channels via crime e-alert networks, utility bill inserts, flyers in National Night Out packets where ten of thousands of "neighborly" residents gather, and media partners. Our success will be tied to initial outreach and real use before it will spread via word of mouth. Year Two - 5. Enhance the twice weekly e-mail digest. Started in year one, it will be key for potential revenue generation (still required despite our non-profit status) by embedding sponsorship and local advertising links in the "broadcast" element of the network. 6. Expand our current network of 10+ neighbor Issues Forums to cover all interested areas in central cities to provide "public life" opportunities to act on local democratic information and news. 7. Build e-block leader tools and dashboard. This will be crucial to deepen reach in specific areas - based on what we know about the rare e-block club bcc: e-list or even private Facebook groups, by supporting bounded networks in addition to our dynamic "leaderless" neighbor circles we will see participation rates up to 80% of households in small one to three block areas. 8. Experiment with "local everywhere" use to determine "viral" potential of the tool starting across Minnesota and potentially in our current UK and New Zealand communities for comparative evaluation. 9. Based on partner and local promotional support (from media partners to community foundations) officially expand Neighborly to more communities.

What will you have changed by the end of your project?

(1794 of 1800 characters remaining)

We will connect civic information and diverse local news sources with extremely local participatory audiences. We will extend social networking from private and professional life into the local public and community life of "citizens." We will leverage the attraction of neighbor to neighbor connections into many forms of next generation online civic engagement. In the start-up phase, some 55,000 households will be engaged in small dynamic "neighbor circles" everyday. In the end, a locals movement online will increase the vitality of local communities by meeting their information and local connection needs. Based on real examples, networked neighbors will: 1. Prevent future crime - did anyone see something last night, my garage was broken into - therefore raising awareness. 2. Share tools and skills - I am renting a rototiller for my garden this weekend who wants to chip in? 3. Help others - Mrs. Smith is recoverying from a sprain, who can help with snow removal and sanding? 4. Get involved - I am starting a petition to turn our intersection into a four-way stop. 5. Communicate - Welcome to the new neighbor/a birth/support for an ill neighbor/sadness with a death. 6. Share news - Here is a local news story about the proposed development on the corner. 7. Protect their families - The police just sent me this notice about a registered sex offender moving in down the street. Whether hosted by Neighborly or via networks adapted to innovatively connect neighbors "dynamically" based on trust and reciprocity, take these examples and multiply by millions. In a time when most do not communicate with more than their immediate neighbors, extending easy group communication down the block is real a "change" that will improve the lives of people and strengthen their communities.

How will you measure progress and ultimately success?

(1598 of 1600 characters remaining)

To serve all blocks in Mpls/St. Paul, we must serve at least one city block well. Then two. Then three. The first measure will be the percent of existing neighbors forums members who join the complementary Neighborly system. The second measure will evaluate city-wide outreach and whether participants will populate the system and start to use it "organically" without a "leader" identified and trained. This is pivotal. Can we create a tool that fosters very small group exchange without the very resource intensive requirement of a leader as catalyst? If yes, then our progress will be based on attracting a critical mass of participants in more and more areas. If word of mouth registration spreads like wildfire, then we must prepare to serve perhaps millions. Therefore, our success range is between interaction in 100 critical mass blocks and one million blocks. Depending upon how our innovative dynamic approach works and its influence on other social networking services, our ultimate success will be based on the spread of our nearest neighbor networking approach across the Internet. In terms the next generation of online civic engagement, our public tier of neighborhood-wide and city-wide opportunities for engagement and efforts to promote local government transparency and the more structured use of democratic information need to benefit from the user base attracted by Neighborly. Our civic mission seeks to move people online into public life and community-wide problem-solving, direct civic action, and general local political participation. Neighborly is a starting point.

Do you see any risk in the development of your project?

(1767 of 1800 characters remaining)

Our biggest concern if this model becomes highly attractive is online safety. While most participants will be "neighborly," we must educate our participants on what information is still dangerous to disclose online even in a semi-private setting. This tool will be used on "nice" blocks as well as those dealing with drug dealers, prostitution, release sex offenders, and others who you will want to be able to block from your "neighbors circle." We have outlined the process for essentially ignoring users by address or name so they are not in your circle of neighborly reciprocity. Does this risk outweigh the benefits of connecting people overall, no but leveraging trust using real identities will also require us to be vigilant and build greater trust and accountability into the system. Neighborly should never be used by someone with a restraining order on someone or under court ordered protection. The other big risk is that up until this point all local neighbor networking has been based on epicenters or bounded places not dynamic circles of exposed, yet semi-private reciprocity based on geography. This means each message posted will have a time-specific home radius of inclusion - if your circle is the 50 nearest neighbors in the system, then any group reply may seen by anyone in that group if the respondent has a smaller circle and barely overlaps. This may be brilliant or create too much complexity. We also need to determine the "shelf life" of exchanges, whether they can be saved, and to what extent people can opt-into private communication or listing of their e-mail address "white pages" style to their nearest neighbors. If we succeed with rapid organic growth, system security will be paramount due to the kind of information being shared.

What is your marketing plan? How will people learn about what you are doing?

(1800 characters remaining)

Our current goal is to build on our stellar cadre of volunteer programmers and designers via online networks and "unconferences" including the recent CityCamp in Chicago. Because this project is based on a passion for an idea that we think just might change the world one block at a time, funding is crucial to fully test and extend the idea. To do this, we need many local partners including neighborhood associations, neighborhood papers, mayors and city council members (who have large e-mail lists in the Twin Cities), the police, local non-profits, community tech centers, libraries, major media outlets and others to assist with marketing via their networks. The ultimate marketing will be launching an easy to use nearest neighbor networking tool that really works for everyday people. The inspired positive feedback about our public neighbor forums can be lifted up exponentially. Our current plans for testing in few blocks calls for intensive outreach working with interested block captains and project volunteers. Uploaded to demonstrate our practical understanding of hyper-local online marketing with our low income/high immigrant neighborhood outreach is the poster template we use in coffee shops and on telephone poles as well as our number one secret weapon - the paper sign-up sheet for our current public neighbors forums. With this funding we will explore the establishment of a cost-effective Americorps program to put field outreach into the most diverse and lowest income areas of the central cities. By mixing the "organic" leaderless systemic convening with support for the block leader, ultimately the later role equipped with tools that work will be the primary recruiter for mass public participation.

Is this a one-time experiment or do you think it will continue after the grant?

(1800 characters remaining)

E-Democracy.org builds online public spaces that are built to last. The relative ease of social technology obscures the real work required to sustain relationships online - particularly where people have differing backgrounds, views, and communication styles. Most local notice boards are untrusted exchanges involving aliases with "drive by" postings. They technically continue, but do not provide sustained value to either the participants or the broader community. They do not build strong bonds. That said, Neighborly is definitely a speculative experiment. With our launch in 1994 with the world's first election information website and state non-partisan political forums, we have had more experience than perhaps anyone on the planet with hosting local interactivity involving the active use of government information, local news, and online public agenda-setting. We are confident that IF the model works, this effort will continue for many years beyond this start-up funding.

If it is to be self-sustainable, what is the plan for making that happen?

(1800 characters remaining)

Neighborly is being designed with sustainability in mind. In terms of revenue we see sponsorship and advertising via the default e-mail digest as the key opportunity. This is similar to the revenue model used by Front Porch Forum, a small business active in Vermont. However, we believe strongly in encouraging and continuing city-wide and neighborhood-wide "public" online communication at no charge, and see Neighborly and its potential penetration rate combined with location data as a key opportunity for local businesses and organizations to reach very local residents online in a way that is not possible via national search engines or regional online news sites. We know how to support volunteer roles and design technology to limit support costs. As a non-profit, we can tap into the inherent goodwill of neighbors to support the network who would likely not do so in a commercial system run by a distant headquarters. (If our model "goes viral" we will have to create volunteer and some paid roles in a geographically distributed manner to ensure functional community ownership.) We also plan to explore a values-based and more ecological alternative to Freecycle and Craigslist where those who take something of significant value for free from a neighbor agree to donate $5 to a local registered charity or go into a community pool for collaborative spending on community projects. A portion of the donation would be kept to support the network. It is far more environmentally friendly to give your couch to someone just down the block than have someone drive across town to pick it up. The key to our approach must be to first keep actual costs as low as possible and then be transparent about real costs and the communities need to cover those costs over time.


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